Martha Edens was laid to rest yesterday. Among her many achievements, she played an important role in the rise of South Carolina’s Republican Party. Ms. Edens took an interest in South Carolina Political Collections soon after we were created in 1991, and was a source of support and counsel.
Perhaps the single most important political development in South Carolina of the 20th century was the rise of the Republican Party, and Martha Edens was an important activist in Republican Party affairs at the local, state and national levels beginning in the late 1950s. Her distinguished Party service included two terms as National Committeewoman. Her brother, J. Drake Edens, Jr., is considered by some to have been the father of the Republican Party in South Carolina for his organizational efforts and service as Party Chairman in the early 1960s.
In a memorable oral history interview we conducted, Ms. Edens noted, “the Republican Party looks for people with ability and the gender doesn’t bother them at all. I was never denied the opportunity to do anything I wanted to do in the Republican Party because I was a woman. We (she and her brother) never wanted to run for political office. All we wanted to do was create a situation where other people that were qualified could offer for elective office. We preferred to help candidates organize campaigns and raise money. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to be a part of something that began with such a small number of dedicated people that has grown to its present day position of prominence. Our party has made an impact on our State as well as our Nation. I have loved every minute of my involvement, the good and the bad.”
Ms. Edens was generous with her time and always seemed happy to hear from me, even though I most often called on her for advice on how best to approach a prospective donor. As one of South Carolina’s Republican elders, her early support helped raise our visibility and demonstrated SCPC’s acceptance as a non-partisan repository.
Politics was just one of Ms. Edens’ interests and she helped with innumerable charitable endeavors benefiting organizations like Richland Memorial Hospital and the United Way. I noted many young women at her memorial service and assume these were just some of the ladies Ms. Edens influenced through her leadership in her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, which she served as Province President, Vice President, National President for three terms, and Extension Director.
When I think of Martha Edens, I always think of two things. First was her gentle and kind reaction to a student assistant who accompanied me for our oral history. As we were packing our equipment at the conclusion of the interview, the student, who had been enchanted by the many miniature elephants in Ms. Edens’ home, naively asked, “What led to your interest in elephants?” Of course, the elephant is the symbol of the Republican Party. The only collection I have seen that rivaled hers was that of her good friend Floyd Spence. Second, was her drive and work ethic. After we both attended a planning meeting for a Republican history group, Ms. Edens shared with me her frustration that the meeting had produced nothing tangible. She felt that each attendee should have left the meeting with a clear task. She truly wanted to do something, not talk about doing things.
At the service yesterday, her minister noted how much she did throughout her life to help people, often making her gifts anonymously. To me, that is the hallmark of her inspirational life – the drive to make a difference, without the need for acclaim and recognition.
By Herb Hartsook